Ceremonies honour Korea diggers


Verified SOF
Jan 15, 2008

MOVING commemoration ceremonies have been held at the site of Australia's biggest military engagement during the Korean War, the Battle of the Kapyong Valley which cost the lives of 32 diggers.
In a memorial park at the foot of Hill 504, a US Eighth Army bugler played the haunting notes of the Last Post to commemorate the Australians who died in a desperate bid to blunt a massive Chinese assault which aimed to capture Seoul.

Some 39 returning veterans and along with their colleagues from Canada, Britain and New Zealand on Friday marked memorial ceremonies at several of the battle sites in the Kapyong valley northeast of Seoul.

Troops from 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and Canada's Princess Patricia Light Infantry bore the brunt of the attack which began on the evening of April 22, 1951.

The battle which is unfamiliar to most Australians cost more than double the casualties incurred during the better known Long Tan which took place years later in the jungles of South Vietnam.

After a night of fierce fighting during which they were overrun, the diggers recaptured their position but were later forced to withdraw at a cost of 32 killed and 53 wounded – a defense which helped blunt the Chinese attack and earned 3RAR a US Presidential Citation.
Follow article up with some background


AS a US Eighth Army trumpeter sounded the Last Post the ageing group of Australian veterans, their British, Kiwi and Canadian mates gathered together at Kapyong in a narrow valley of lush fir trees bounded by a tumbling mountain stream, rose to attention and saluted fallen comrades.
Minutes earlier, the arrival of 50 Australian and New Zealand Korean War veterans had marked the start of formal ceremonies commemorating the 59th anniversary of the Commonwealth 27th Brigade's action at Kapyong: a stand that blunted, then reversed a concerted Chinese assault that aimed to capture Seoul.

"March on, Anzac veterans," came shouted orders and the smartly formed group of old warriors, aged between 75 and 83 - all wearing medals and many their old unit berets - strode forward.

"We come here today to remember those who died and pay tribute to those whose lives were sacrificed in the Korean War," Paul Mooney said.

Hymns sung by a visiting Canberra girls choir added to the solemnity of the occasion, while Australian ambassador Sam Gerovich noted that few Diggers could have imagined the cause for which they fought 59 years ago had produced "the stable and prosperous Korea of today".

Two stone monuments stand at opposite ends of the impeccably maintained memorial park, one for NZ gunners and the other commemorating 32 Australian lives lost here.

A steep-sided hill connected by a sharp spur falling away to the northeast forms the backdrop to the memorial.

It was here Diggers of 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment fell in a heroic but little known action defending the summit and slopes of what they would come to know as Hill 504 and what historians would call the Battle of the Kapyong Valley.

The Australians were not alone. The battle that began on the night of April 22, 1951, would last until Anzac Day and involve two other battalions - Canadian and British - a US heavy tank company and NZ artillery.

The regiment's actions would cost the Chinese 60th Division more than 500 killed and earn it a US presidential citation, one of three to be conferred after the battle that the Australian War Memorial lists as the most significant fought by Australians during the 1950-53 Korean War.

But while most Australians have heard of Gallipoli, Kokoda and Long Tan, few know about the Korean conflict and even fewer about Kapyong or its significance: a source of great indignation for the country's 4000 surviving Korean War veterans.

Many feel cheated of public recognition for their contribution, Korean Veterans Association of Australia co-ordinator John Simmons says.

"In addition to the land battles, a lot was done by the air force and navy. It was one in, all in."

George Gamble from South Australia, a former gunner on HMAS Warramunga, feels particularly aggrieved over a 22-year fight, finally recognised, for compensation for a hearing disability.

He blames government and the RSL for what he describes as their "tardy recognition" for services rendered by Australian Korean War veterans.

To better understand the battle, some background is required on events leading to the Chinese spring offensive.

By April 1951, UN forces had been steadily pushing north of the Han River and were once again approaching the 38th parallel, the dividing line between the two Koreas. The Australian 3RAR was advancing steadily up the Kapyong Valley 60km northeast of Seoul. But intelligence had indicated a new Chinese offensive was imminent.

It was launched across the Korean Peninsula on the night of April 22 on two broad western and central fronts.

About 700,000 communist troops were faced by 418,000 under UN command, 245,000 of whom were American. Standing in the path of the main Chinese attack to the west of the 27th Brigade was the Commonwealth's 29th Brigade. Its stand on the Imjin River - one of the bloodiest British engagements of the war - helped hold off the Chinese advance for two days but saw the virtual annihilation of the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.

Then the Chinese turned their attention to the 27th Brigade.

The Australians hastily dug in on Hill 504 and the Canadian Princess Patricia Light Infantry dug across the valley 5km to the west on Hill 677. The first attacks fell on the US tank platoon and the two Australian forward company positions deployed in front of Hill 504. They involved up to 10,000 Chinese, an entire division.

In hot pursuit of fleeing South Korean troops, the leading elements of the Chinese smashed into the forward Australian positions around the base of their isolated hilltop redoubt.

Keith Langdon from Melbourne, then a 23-year-old rifleman, was serving with D Company, 12 Platoon on the summit of 504. He says he had been told the Chinese were 100km away to the north when they attacked.

"We had been quite relaxed, lying back having a smoke. But during the night [April 23] the Republic of Korea troops came streaming down through our lines, chased by the Chinese already among them.

"It was dusk and we could see the tracers and flares going up as they engaged our A and B companies at the bottom of the hill."

The Australian lines held but desperate fighting ensued throughout the night as the Diggers fended off repeated Chinese probing attacks using Bren guns, Owen guns, rifles and grenades. Later that night NZ gunners were able to fire their 25 pounders in support.

Coloured marker panels were placed by D Company around their hilltop positions and US air support called.

It arrived in the form of two Corsair fighters. Unfortunately they dropped canisters of napalm on the 3RAR positions thanks to poor communication from a spotter plane.

"They dropped right on top of us, D company, and it started burning our ammunition supplies and that caused us worries. And we had three of four blokes that I know were badly burned," Langdon recalls.

He says the Diggers were well led by their officers, most of whom were seasoned World War II veterans including Aboriginal officer Reg Saunders, who also fought at Kapyong.

But the fighting on Hill 677, where the Canadian Princess Patricia Light Infantry Battalion was deployed, was equally vicious.

Ted Adye, 82, from Toronto, was serving with the PPLI as a radio operator and recalls the commander of Dog Company calling in NZ artillery support on their own position to break up a determined Chinese attack.

"We knew the Aussies were taking a helluva kicking; they were on a much lower group of hills and we were higher, so the Chinese probably thought it was easier to attack the Australians first," Adye says. "I was just a private, but this was where we stopped the bastards, and we both [3RAR and PPLI] got a presidential unit citation after it was over."

In reserve down the valley from the Australians was the Middlesex Regiment from Britain and the NZ artillery battery.

Mick Woodley, 80, was serving with the Middlesex Regiment and now lives in South Australia.

"As light came [the morning of April 24] we were ordered to stand-to, then they [Chinese] started mortaring us.

"We'd heard the Aussies had been over-run and our D Company was ordered up to help them.

"But the Chinese didn't get past the Aussies; they beat them off. The Canadians were also taking a lot of shit at the same time."

On Anzac Day, exhausted and with ammunition and medical supplies running low, having retaken several positions over-run by the Chinese but in dire danger of being cut off, 3RAR was ordered to withdraw. It was a decision made by senior commanders acutely aware of the fate of the Glosters days before.

NZ gunners fired smoke shells to disguise the retreat and US Sherman tanks from the 72nd Heavy Tank Battalion also lent their support.

Langdon remembers withdrawing from his hilltop position and Chinese prisoners being ordered to carry Australian wounded in makeshift litters.

"We went down off the top [of the hill] and started to withdraw to where the Middlesex were," he says. Although the Chinese continued to launch small-scale attacks, by April 25 the 27th Brigade had re-established control of the Kapyong front and the Chinese, themselves low on food and ammunition, were forced to withdraw. Estimates of Chinese killed by 3RAR's defence of Hill 504 run to more than 500, with another 300 killed by the Canadians.

But the Diggers had paid a heavy price: 32 killed, 59 wounded and three taken prisoner. It was more than twice the number killed in the better known Battle of Long Tan fought years later in the jungles of South Vietnam.

The commanding officer of 3RAR, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Ferguson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, platoon commander Leonard Montgomerie won the Military Cross and four soldiers were awarded the Military Medal.

Horace Madden, who died in captivity, was posthumously awarded the George Cross.